Michigan quieted some of its naysayers last week with a resounding 33-17 victory against then-No. 17 Florida at AT&T Stadium. The Wolverines are back in Ann Arbor this weekend, where they’ll play their home opener against Cincinnati.
Michigan will find a familiar face on the opposing sideline in first-year head coach Luke Fickell, formerly the defensive coordinator and interim head coach at Ohio State. While the Wolverines are well along in their rebuild under Jim Harbaugh, the Bearcats aren’t — meaning it may be difficult for them to beat Michigan and ‘shock the world,’ as their senior running back Mike Boone said they could.
Here’s what to watch for when Cincinnati and Michigan kick off:
1. The base defense
In a departure from last season, defensive coordinator Don Brown heavily employed the 3-3-5 stack against Florida, opting to use redshirt junior SAM linebacker Noah Furbush in place of redshirt junior nose tackle Bryan Mone for much of the game.
Last season, Michigan was happy to stay in a 4-2-5 shell whenever the defense was on the field. What the 3-3-5 may sacrifice in pure girth and power along the line is made up by the addition of a linebacker-type player such as Furbush or redshirt freshman Josh Uche. That player can put his hand in the dirt on passing downs, flexing sophomore strong-side end Rashan Gary inside, or play in the box alongside sophomore middle linebacker Devin Bush Jr. and fifth-year senior weakside linebacker Mike McCray.
The new look confused Florida, allowing Michigan to pressure the quarterback despite only rushing three linemen at times, but it remains to be seen whether the new scheme was a gimmick — meant to be used sparingly — or whether it’s the new base defense. If the Wolverines use the 3-3-5 heavily once more this week, that may indicate the latter.
2. Who will earn the majority of snaps at tight end?
Going into the season, this position group was deemed deep and the season opener did nothing to dispel that notion. In fact, the veterans of the group — redshirt junior Ian Bunting and redshirt sophomore Tyrone Wheatley Jr. — may have been overshadowed by younger players who were thought to be behind in the pecking order.
Sophomore Sean McKeon and redshirt freshman Nick Eubanks both flashed their tantalizing potential in the passing game and run-blocking game while redshirt sophomore Zach Gentry, a converted quarterback, saw plenty of snaps as well.
It’s unclear whether there’s a true No. 1 option among the group right now. It was assumed one of Bunting or Wheatley would be ‘the guy.’ There’s a lot more uncertainty now after the first week; whoever sees the field the most, or can convert their snaps into production, may end up being the leader of the pack following this week.
3. Will Speight continue looking for the big play?
The redshirt junior quarterback took several shots downfield against Florida and connected on a few of them, including a 46-yard touchdown to freshman receiver Tarik Black and a 48-yard completion to Eubanks. Earlier this week, though, Jim Harbaugh spoke of the need to allow the deep passing game to develop naturally, and not to force things downfield.
While Cincinnati allowed just 89 passing yards on 19 attempts against Austin Peay, it’s doubtful the Bearcats will be able to dictate what Michigan does in the passing game. It’ll be interesting to see whether Speight continues to look for big plays — they were certainly there against the Gators — or whether there’s an emphasis on hitting targets in the short and intermediate passing game.
4. Rashan Gary Sack Watch
It isn’t common for Jim Harbaugh to call for a stat correction. But he did so Monday, telling reporters that Rashan Gary should’ve been issued a half-sack from Saturday.
Perhaps it’s hard to believe that Gary, the much-hyped former top recruit, has yet to record a full sack through his first 14 games. It’s not for a lack of ability — he’s gotten to the quarterback plenty of times, and even recorded a half sack last year against Central Florida. In the win over the Gators, Gary constantly terrorized Florida’s offensive line, making life difficult for quarterbacks Malik Zaire and Feleipe Franks. Once again, though, he was unable to turn those pressures and hurries into an actual sack.
This week, Gary should have plenty of opportunities to fill the stat sheet. The Bearcats’ offensive line should be a step down from Florida’s, and given Michigan seems likely to shut down Cincinnati’s run game while simultaneously jumping out to a big lead, quarterback Hayden Moore may be dropping back to pass for much of the afternoon. It seems likely that at some point, he’ll end up on the ground, looking up at Gary.